Shut up and take my money

As written for Auckland university of technology

November, 2015


“Correct me if I’m wrong” isn’t a phrase we often overhear these days.

The sentiment is simple, but a powerful one: I’ve got something to say – and on that topic, you might, too.

There are important power dynamics at play when we submit ourselves to learn, when we invest several thousand dollars and hundreds of hours in labour per semester for a qualification many of us aren’t sure how to use at the end of it. Anxiety and tensions run high. We want assurances that we’re getting our money’s worth. “What the hell am I paying for?” is the more common rant you’ll hear ringing through the halls, especially around peak assessment times.

And I’m genuinely interested to hear people’s opinions: what do you expect to walk away with from university? What do you expect of your experience while you’re here? Of the students around you? Of the staff who teach you? Of the facilities you use and the resources you can access?

When we’re students, we want to trust that we’re studying under the right people in the right degree. Submitting to trust requires relinquishing a degree of control, and that makes a lot of people nervous when the investment is so high.

Since my return to university, it’s been interesting to see the trend of students who emphasise the transactional nature of their education. I’ve witnessed attitudes that you are a customer first and entitled to certain things – or maybe all the things you demand, because the customer is always right… right?

Dear anyone who has ever had to work with a customer over a protracted period of time – was the customer always right? Did they always know exactly what they wanted when they walked in the door? Did their requirements never change during the course of your working relationship? Let’s say that you complied with all their requests without providing any input to their ideas; were they always happy with what came out the other end? They never received exactly what they asked for and then look at you in slack-jawed disbelief, claiming it isn’t what they wanted?

If you said yes to all of the above, you may have a unicorn – full of grace, producer of rainbows, and also entirely unreal.

I’m a firm believer that you should get your money’s worth, but how many of us appreciate the mutual exchange that’s going on between student and teachers?

Correct me if I’m wrong, but both sides learn and teach. Students learn and grow in the subject knowledge from their teachers, while teachers also learn and grow through their experiences of instructing.

Perhaps the unspoken end to the above exclaim is… “What the hell am I paying for? I don’t know, but please get it right!”

I’ve observed students (and families of students) with the attitude of a bank account. They expect that if money goes out, knowledge comes in, deposited by lecturers and teaching assistants. I’ve also observed staff in my lifetime who regard students as more of a nuisance than a responsibility, a barrier to their “real” research responsibilities.

Two things at least, we all seem to agree on:

1)      Students have a responsibility to learn,

2)      Staff have a responsibility to teach.

Being a tutor is an interesting island of middle ground.

“They don’t know that we know.”

We students expect that our teachers have our backs and we trust them to keep us from going too far off-road to be irrelevant to our degrees. This is why we get frustrated when we don’t receive timely, clear and consistent instruction.

“They don’t know -- that we know  -- they don’t know.”

We staff expect that our students will apply themselves, will trust us to have their backs. Glimpsing the other side, I have so much new respect for what lecturers go through: the insane hours, the planning, the politics, the personalities, the marking (good lord, the marking), and, at the end of it all, that burning wish for your students to do well and learn to love the journey.

But we all know –

Correct me if I’m wrong, but to both sets of expectations, trust is key. Trust is either assumed (and held pending disappointment) or earned (after a season of tests). Correct me if I’m wrong, but trust usually takes the luxury of time that we don’t think we can afford in a short twelve-week semester. But our thousands of dollars investment and hours in labour depend on it. In your own assessment, not everyone may earn it (the students you study with, the staff who teach you). I hope that doesn’t stop you from considering whatever lessons they still shared with you, or from trusting in the possibility of what you can learn from the next person, and the person after that. 

So, excuse me, I don’t just want your money. Thank you to both our staff and students who kept showing up week after week to give us their time, attention and experience. As we come to the end of assessment period, remember that you are more than simply your grades or a pending bank balance. Your teachers are more than benevolent dictators or dollar signs with fangs.

We’re all learning, we’re going to get things wrong. Enjoy your break when it comes, and when we come back for the next round we’re all going to do things a little bit better.